Is bad performance in sport connected to bad governance?

Photo: Birkbeck Media Services Centre

Former FA chairman David Bernstein speaking at Birkbeck Business Week 2014. Photo: Birkbeck Media Services Centre/Flickr

Yes, says former English FA chairman David Bernstein in a critical evaluation of his previous organisation, and the viewpoint is echoed in Brazil

“Football cannot be the only business where the structure and the set-up of the whole organisation does not have an influence on the results.”

Almost a year after leaving his position as a short-lived chairman of the English Football Association (FA), David Bernstein for the first time shared his concerns – or frustrations, if you wish – with a wider audience at a one-day conference 26 June on mega-events and governance in sport arranged by Birkbeck Sport Business Centre in London.

Bernstein closed the day by delivering a very critical speech on the organisation of English football. And if the delegate from the Brazilian embassy did not immediately provide her government with a summary of Bernstein’s speech, she now has the perfect occasion to do so after Brazil’s devastating 1-7 defeat in the World-Cup semi-final against Germany.

For the former president of Manchester City and head of the total of English football found a clear link between his national team’s performance on the pitch and the weak, complex and ineffective structure of English football’s ruling body:

“Now we have been knocked out of the World Cup again, I think only nine days after we went,” Bernstein noted with disappointment.

“That compounds 40 years of almost consistent under-performance. We have had different managers, different players, but the same results. Is there a connection between that performance and the governance issues? Of course there is,” Bernstein said and continued by delivering the opening quote of this article. He then added:

“The problem is not team selection, and not formations like 4-4-2 or 3-5-1-1 – it is systemic and has a long history.”

An echo from Brazil
As an echo from afar, just while this article is being written, one of Brazil’s most experienced sports political observers, the journalist José Cruz, summarizes the Brazilian breakdown in the football arena in this dry, level-headed first line of a blog post:

“The defeat of Felipão’s team synthesizes the management of our sport.”

Like Cruz in his blog post blames the government for pouring public money into dysfunctional sports organisations without trying to change them, Bernstein calls for a stronger government pressure on the football structures which remains largely unchanged since the 1950’ies:

“Change will not happen without outside intervention, because the FA is not capable of self-reform, and without this reform real substantial progress will be impossible.”

Only marginal success
David Bernstein did not give himself much credit for what he achieved when he was elected as the FA chairman in February 2011 at another moment of deep crisis.

When he took office, the failure of the English team in the World Cup 2010 in South Africa and the unsuccessful bid for hosting the World Cup 2018 had put football under pressure, and the government and parliament had appointed a committee to analyse football’s structures. The conclusion of the committee was that the FA needed “urgent reform” in order to “carry out its responsibilities effectively” and “meet the future challenges of the game”.

Unfortunately, this momentum for reform was not used, according to Bernstein:

“I managed only to achieve a marginal success: the introduction of two independent directors on the FA Board,” Bernstein admitted, adding that to achieve this single step forward he had to travel England far and wide and talk to endless numbers of club representatives.

Too much influence from Premier League
The stagnation of the FA becomes even more evident when at the same time another English football organisation, the Premier League (PL), has gone through an explosive development.

And though Bernstein found that the Premier League exerted too much influence over the FA, largely because of its power to fund English football directly and indirectly, he readily acknowledged the success of his former partners and counterparts. 

“The Premier League has a £ 3-4 billion income, and nobody can dispute it has a fantastic product. The FA dispose of one tenth of that fortune. The Premier League belongs to the 21st century with a very streamlined and powerful organisation, whereas the FA is mid-20th century; The FA Council is outmoded, it has an obscure shareholder structure, the committee structure beggars belief and drives the executives crazy.”

David Bernstein insisted that the FA needs a modern, independent structure that can better balance the influence of the Premier League, but his hope of being a reformer waned when after some time the public pressure decreased. According to Bernstein, this is a logic consequence when the issue becomes technical and difficult, and he declared he was not an optimist:

“The only solution would come if enough pressure is exerted from the outside, but I cannot see that happen and being sustained. Another Suarez will take the attention, and it will go away again,” Bernstein said with reference to the excitement when the Uruguayan player Luis Suarez bit an opponent.

“So when we [the English team] fail again in two or four or six years’ time as we have done for the last 40 years, don’t be surprised.”

Need to be inside FIFA
As the only president of a football federation that openly stood up to criticise FIFA’s president Sepp Blatter during the tense FIFA congress in 2011, David Bernstein was surprisingly low-key when addressing FIFA issues in his Birkbeck speech:

“In spite of my standing up against the election process [when Blatter was re-elected], I managed to establish a relationship with Sepp Blatter and his group, because we need them. We need to stay inside that tent, because if you are outside, things can get very difficult.”

“In this country FIFA is very much in the bad news. However, FIFA holds over 200 countries together which is no small achievement, and it does a great deal of good. It is damaged by repetitious scandals due to poor structures, but our concerns are not shared by a large part of the FIFA constituency.”

Bernstein acknowledged that there are efforts made to reform FIFA “but the proof of the pudding will be in the eating”:

“Will Sepp Blatter get reelected? Probably. Will Qatar hold the World Cup, summer or winter? Probably. Will reform happen? It may do, but will it be real? FIFA is very good as cosmeticising things, so will it be real reform? I do not know. But I think we will be better placed to take a stand on FIFA if we could make a serious attempt to bring our own house in order. We live in hope.”

More information

On-demand video of David Bernstein’s speech and other contributions from Birkbeck Business Week can be found at (sports debate only 26 June)



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